Orchestra directors complain about having to program the same overplayed symphonies every season in order to sell tickets. This isn’t always the case; the NSO debuted a new piece by Peter Lieberson to a sold-out concert hall at last week’s 50th anniversary JFK inaugural concert, although guest stars Paul Simon and Morgan Freeman were probably the real draws. But for the most part, it’s the old Germans and Austrians who people are willing to pay to see, not the world premieres that conductors get to have composed just for them.
Yet considering the size of the core repertory—-the Mozart 25ths and Beethoven 9ths that even people who don’t like classical music know, thanks to Amadeus and Die Hard—-there’s plenty of old standards to go around. This reviewer remembers seeing Naughty by Nature a few years ago. For a group that hadn’t had a hit since 1995, they were under no illusions that anyone wanted to hear their new material, and were happy to give the crowd exactly what they came for: They played “O.P.P.” twice, “Feel Me Flow” twice, and “Hip Hop Hooray” three times.
So to play Beethoven’s 5th once every few seasons (the NSO last did it in 2007) isn’t really that much of a burden. And when they perform something that every professional musician has played countless times, the result is usually superb, as it was last night. The 5th Symphony is the one people most associate with the composer’s middle period, which in turn is what people most associate with Beethoven. With three of its four movements being allegro, it’s well suited for orchestras that like to charge through pieces like the running of the bulls. It’s also well suited for NSO director Christoph Eschenbach, finally back from his first season mini-sabbatical in France, to leverage his emotional conducting style. The result was a confident, boisterous, and very loud delivery that started with the famous da-da-da-dahhh and never lost momentum.
The rest of the bill was less compelling. The 5th was paired with Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto,” another core standard yet one that makes you wonder how it got in that category. Beethoven composed the piece for his mediocre piano student Rudolph, heir to the Hapsburg throne. It was important then for composers to curry favor with inbred nobles, even those as untalented as Rudolph. So Beethoven wrote a melody that he could play paired with a violin and cello, a melody that was far more technically challenging to play on the other two instruments, and thus make Rudolph appear on par with Vienna’s best string musicians. The scheme paid off—-Rudolph went on to become crown prince of Austria-Hungary and a lifelong patron. But the piece itself is mindlessly repetitive, going over the same motifs four times each (once for each soloist and once for the full orchestra) to make sure no performers—-particularly rich and connected ones—-would feel slighted.
Eschenbach seems to be starting a habit of sneaking one modern piece onto the program early, on the assumption no one really cares about the opening band anyway. But the first piece, Alban Berg’s 1930 “Three Pieces for Orchestra,” got equal billing in the very name of the program, Berg & Beethoven. And it was apparent from his effusive conducting that Eschenbach enjoys the piece a lot; the audience somewhat less. For a mostly abstract modernist composition, it’s fairly rich and flows through three parts that are at times placid and hair-raising. It’s also fun to see some of the odder things the work calls for, such as a tuba mute and guy with a giant mallet.
It’s a sign of this program’s placeholder status that it features no guest soloists. Of the three featured in the “Triple Concerto,” the only piece to have solos, all were in-house NSO players. As principal chairs of their respective sections, they were certainly capable—-cellist David Hardy handled a fairly difficult piece quite well if not perfectly. Whether the NSO had plans for attracting out-of-town guests that fell through, or if Hardy, violinist Nurit Bar-Josef and pianist Lambert Orkis simply asked for try-out time as soloists themselves, isn’t clear. But those who care about big names will have to wait till next Wednesday to see Joshua Bell at Strathmore.
The program continues through the weekend, Friday, Jan. 28 and Saturday, Jan. 29 starting at 8 pm at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. $20 – $85. (800) 444-1324.